There's nothing like climbing into bed after a long day, placing your head on a soft pillow, and drifting off to sleep—only to be abruptly awakened by your baby's cries.
For many moms and dads, this repeat scenario can go on for months, and in some cases, even years.
But getting enough shut-eye each night isn’t just a concern for the parents in the house. When infants don't snooze enough, it can negatively affect both their bodies and minds.
"Sleep impacts every aspect of a baby's development, from physical growth to emotional development," says Lisa Meltzer, Ph.D., a sleep specialist and associate professor of pediatrics at National Jewish Health in Denver, CO. "Babies who sleep more have better gains in weight, length and head circumference. Sleep also helps an infant's brain process and reorganize information learned during the day, develop stronger social skills, and have better maternal/child interaction."
If you happen to be a sleep-deprived parent reading this, you may be thinking, easier said than done!
But there may be a simple solution that doesn’t involve taking your baby for middle-of-the-night car trips around the neighborhood. Ready? The secret to helping your child get those essential ZZZs may just come down to creating a regular nighttime schedule.
"Babies who have a consistent bedtime routine sleep more, wake less during the night, and wake up happier each morning," says Dr. Meltzer, adding that a bedtime routine, which can last anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour, gives your child time to relax and transition the body into sleep mode.
In fact, a study conducted with support from JOHNSON'S™—which has tracked a whopping 300,000+ baby sleep sessions with help from over 30 pediatricians and sleep specialists around the world—found that following a bedtime routine for just one week can help your baby fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer.
So what exactly constitutes a solid bedtime routine for baby? According to Dr. Meltzer, there are seven simple steps that any parent can practice each night.
Everyone has an internal clock, also known as a circadian rhythm, that helps keep sleep on track. Your baby will start to develop one around 12 weeks—but your little one won't likely develop a normal sleep/wake pattern unless you impose one.
So aim to put your baby to bed around the same time, advises Dr. Meltzer, so your infant can eventually get tired at a consistent time each night.
Shut off laptops, tablets, TVs and smartphones near your baby 30 to 60 minutes prior to bedtime.
"Technology goes from on to off with the flip of a switch, but the brain is more like a dimmer switch—it takes a little while to shut down," says Dr. Meltzer. In other words, it's difficult for an infant to go straight from, say, playing with an exciting, bright, loud toy to peaceful slumber.
“It also emits a lot of light," adds Dr. Meltzer. Any bright light—especially the kind emitted from screens, called blue light—can overly stimulate the brain.
Melatonin, a hormone that’s made by the pineal gland in the brain that helps regulate sleep and wake cycles, starts to increase in the evening, after sunset, and tends to stay high throughout the night, while it's dark. After sunrise, it starts to decrease, when it's time to wake up.
But if you have tons of bright lights on in the house until midnight, including light from electronic devices, that can disrupt melatonin production. So try dimming a bright overhead light in the nursery, or turn it off and use a nightlight instead. Not only will softer lighting help trigger your baby's body to produce melatonin, but it will also act as a visual cue, so your baby knows that it's time to wind down.
Few activities can be as soothing as taking a bath—and that’s especially true for little ones. After coming out of a warm bath, a baby's body temperature starts to cool, which can help your infant fall asleep more easily.
Use water that's warm but not hot (90 to 100 degrees), and fill the tub with just a couple of inches of water. If your infant can’t yet sit up, support your baby’s head and back with one hand, while using a washcloth and mild baby wash to cleanse your little one.
(Note: Before giving your baby a tub bath, speak to your pediatrician about whether a sponge bath might be more appropriate. For instance, you should avoid putting your baby in a tub until the umbilical cord has fallen off.)
If you've ever gotten a professional massage, then you know how relaxing it can be. But when it comes to your baby, massage can also have added benefits.
"Massage provides really important skin contact between parent and child, and that closeness can help foster infant development," says Dr. Meltzer. "It also helps make falling asleep a little easier."
Using gentle strokes, rub a baby-friendly lotion lightly over your child's body, avoiding the face and hands, which will help calm your baby in time for slumber.
This can mean everything from reading stories to your baby to listening to soft music together—or even singing to your little one.
In fact, reading isn't just calming—it can also boost your little one's brainpower. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends reading every day to little kids, beginning when they are infants, to improve their acquisition of language and overall literacy skills.
If you're looking for some musical inspiration, play one of the 14 lullabies on the free JOHNSON'S® BEDTIME® baby sleep app, such as “Hush Little Baby” and “Lullaby and Goodnight.” The app also offers 14 ambient sounds, including the sound of ocean waves and gentle rain.
"Babies wake up briefly every hour at the end of each sleep cycle,” says Dr. Meltzer. “One of the reasons that some babies sleep through the night is that they've learned how to fall asleep at bedtime—and put themselves back to sleep during the night.”
So if you teach your baby to rely on a crutch to get back to sleep, like being nursed or rocked, as your infant gets older, that habit may become ingrained and hard to break.
A better habit to start as soon as possible: put your baby into the crib when your little one is drowsy, but not yet asleep.
If you’re struggling with a fussy baby at bedtime, try first using just one of these tips for two to three days, then make an additional change every few days until you land on a routine that helps your baby get to sleep.
Added bonus: You’ll get more shut-eye, too.